Leon is a shabbier, more streetwise and arguably more authentic brother to Granada. There’s no doubt about it, Nicaragua an ideal destination for budget travellers. With private rooms to be found for $8, rice and beans available on the street for a quick eat and things to do that easily come in at under $5, Leon is an awesome place for backpackers to explore.
Things to Do in Leon, Nicaragua
Leon is a hub for tour operators boasting trips to volcanoes and everywhere else they can think of, but truth be told, there are plenty of cultural activities to do in the city too.
Sliding down the black sands of Cerro Negro, an active volcano, on an old bit of plywood is something you’ll certainly never get to do anywhere else! Well technically you can go volcano ‘surfing’ in Hawaii, which sounds pretty darm similar. Charlie did a longer post on whether volcano boarding is awesome (in her opinion, no) while National Geographic spoke a little more fondly of it.
I recommend volcano boarding with hesitation, as it’s pretty much just as dangerous as it looks (possibly more dangerous than it looks). Half of the fun is in climbing the volcano and admiring the view, so the safety-conscious can save $5 by choosing to walk down rather than board.
Admire Museo de Arte Fundación Ortiz-Guardián
Not expecting much, we found ourselves captivated by the art in this peaceful gem of a gallery. The tour guides were so helpful and the gallery so interesting that we almost felt bad that the admission price was so low! You should check it out if you’re even remotely into art, I think it holds it’s own even when compared to London’s Tate Modern.
Walk on the Roof of Leon Cathedral
Walking barefoot across the roof of Leon’s colossal Cathedral, the largest in Central America, is an excellent way to get to know the city. From up above the bustle, you can see all of Leon before you and a number of Nicaragua’s ominous volcanoes. The cathedral, like much of the city, still bears the scorch marks of Nicaragua’s explosive past.
Where to Eat in Leon, Nicaragua
As budget-conscious veggies, we struggled to find food in Leon that was both healthy and reasonably priced. If you are majorly into pizza or steak, then you’ll probably have better luck.
CocinArte was a charming vegetarian restaurant, managed by a long-term German expat. The menu is very international with everything from tagine to curry on offer, though the prices are a little high for budget travellers and Charlie said her food was too salty.
Italian Nicaraguan fusion anyone? Prices are a little high and the portions are a little small at Nicaraguita Cafe, but the food is pretty good and it’s a nice place to drink a beer or a coffee.
We were wary of trying El Desayunazo because Tripadvisor reviews that describe a place as having the ‘best international breakfast in town’ tend to point to eateries that are over-priced and under-flavoured. But we were totally wrong. Not only was the food good, generous and reasonable, but the building has a nice atmosphere and the clientele were mostly locals, with a few gringos thrown in.
Where to Sleep in Leon, Nicaragua
Sonati, $15 for a private double
Ah Sonati. More like where not to sleep. We were looking forward to our stay at Sonati, and who wouldn’t? They are expertly advertised as a cool hostel with charitable ties to the local community and organic coffee on tap!
However, in seven months of budget travel and counting, this is the only place in Central America that we had to leave early. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong: no toilet paper, broken locks on the door, no windows, no internet connection in the building… When we were faced with no running water for the second day in a row, we decided to call it a day and pack our bags, though not before we paid a bill that was a little high than it should be (it wasn’t the usual few hour water shortages that you get in Nicaragua, as our neighbours had no trouble with their water supply).
Sonati is a little like a university dormitory in that everyone is trying to change the world but nobody wants to do the washing up. It is mostly ‘run’ by student volunteers too, who are super nice but far from professional. Their tours are perfectly reasonable, but you’ll get a better deal and a better time with one of the other tour companies in the city.
Casa Nicarina (possibly, maybe not that exact name), $8 for private double room
How do you like that price? Literally just round the corner from Sonati, there’s a little family-run guesthouse that will give you a room for half the price what the established hostels are asking. Not only that, but they are determined to help their guests in any way they can. You won’t be one of fifteen backpackers trying to get onto Facebook here, so the internet connection will be better too. You won’t find this place on Google Maps, so just walk along the main strip with your eyes open.